Learn the Circle of Fourths

The January/February 2015 issue of Making Music revealed the magic of the circle of fifths—a visual way to learn the sharps and flats in each key signature, as well as the relationships between different keys. The circle of fifths is created by arranging pitches in intervals of ascending fifths, in a clock-like pattern. However, some musicians prefer it arranged in the circle of fourths.

It’s quite simple to make the switch, thanks to the fact that fourths and fifths are inverse intervals. That is, from any note, going up a fifth and going down a fourth will bring you to the same pitch—just an octave apart. This means that the circle of fourths is really just the circle of fifths, reversed.


Starting from scratch? Not to worry! To build the circle of fourths, start at the top position of the circle with C major, which has no sharps or flats. Moving clockwise, add pitches in the order of ascending fourths: Count up four notes, including the starting and ending notes. For example, from C, count “C-D-E-F” to find that the note in the next position of the circle is F. Be sure that the pitches are exactly five half-steps apart so that you distinguish between B and B-flat, and F and F-sharp.

Just like the circle of fifths, the circle of fourths also works for minor keys. Instead of starting with C major at the top, start with A minor, which has no sharps or flats. In both major and minor, the circle of fourths will reveal key signatures just as easily as the circle of fifths. Add one flat at each position around the circle moving clockwise and one sharp at each position moving counterclockwise.

Closely related keys—those with similar key signatures—are positioned next to each other regardless of whether you view the circle in fifths or in fourths. But you may opt for fourths since, as you move around the circle clockwise, you’ll find that many common chord progressions (like the ones below) are all lined up for you. For this reason, it’s a great idea to play through chords or practice scales following the circle of fourths. The more you do this, the more you’ll recognize chord patterns intuitively.

No matter which you prefer, get familiar with one of these circles and other music theory concepts will really start to come around!

Chord Progressions Based on the Circle of Fourths

E  A  D  G  C

Heard on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” by Bobby Vee as chord progression  E maj7—A maj7—D maj7—G maj7—C maj6

Heard on “The Long and Winding Road” by The Beatles as chord progression E min—A min—D min7—G maj7—C maj

D  G  C  F  Bb

Heard on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John as chord progression  D min—G maj—C maj—F maj—Bb maj—G maj7—C maj

Heard on “Lady Jane” by The Rolling Stones as chord progression D maj7—G min— C maj7—F maj

C  F  BEAb

Heard on “Light My Fire” by The Doors as chord progression F maj—Bb maj—Eb maj—Ab maj

Heard on “Lovely Rita” by The Beatles as chord progression


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